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Program II, Jackie Gleason Theatre, January 24-26, 2003

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"Tchaikovsky's Princes and Poets" was the rubric Miami City Ballet used to bring together two excerpts from the traditional "Swan Lake" and two Balanchine settings from the same composer's Suite No. 3 for Orchestra. The excerpts were the "white" Act II and the "Black Swan" pas de deux from Act III. I saw the program in Miami Beach.

I have to say that the tradional "Swan Lake" has never been my glass of tea, coming to it after Balanchine's compact, intensive setting of half an hour or so of music (and much traditional choreography) from Acts II and IV; dispensing entirely with Act I, as many Met audience members used to do, was a step in the right direction, but I was still unhappy with some slow tempos Edward Villella uses when he stages this excerpt. And whenever I see the four little swans dance, I think how wise Mr. B. was to drop that. But not everyone thinks so, and if MCB wants to be the only ballet company in town, it's probably wise to mount some trips back to the nineteenth century (which is exactly how Villella spoke of these excerpts in his usual pre-performance talk), because they're asking for it in south Florida. (The company's smash "Giselle" last year was in response to suggestion forms collected from their audience, and tickets sold so well there were additional performances not originally scheduled.)

The slow tempos were mainly Odette's, and it was rewarding to see how different dancers coped. Jordan Levin, writing in the Miami Herald, found Ileana Lopez and Franklin Gamero giving a warmly passionate performance on opening night, while to me their performance was clean, clear, and a little lacking in energy, but more effective than I had expected, until the very end, when Gamero's Siegfried didn't seem much moved by Odette's exit under von Rothbart's spell, but just turned away, extending an arm to the opposite side of the stage. The following evening, Deana Seay's expected fluidity held this role together for greater cumulative dance effect, and her soft lightness made Odette more touching; what I hadn't expected was her ability to give the slowness some suppleness and nuance when it could merely have been empty. And Carlos Guerra was not only the fine partner all the men in this company seem to be, but at the very end, his pantomime made much more of how he was affected by what Siegfried had seen: Turning away from the wings and throwing his lowered arms back, he raised his face to heaven for a moment, and then, bringing his arms forward, lowered his head slowly as the curtain fell.

And at the Sunday matinee, Katia Carranza, with Luis Serrano, gave the best (and last) performance, as Odette, that I saw of her in the two consecutive weekends. It's something to see the company continue to flourish under difficult circumstances; it's something more to see a dancer listed among the "soloists and corps de ballet" in this two-tier company develop into a principal before your eyes. Or was I learning to tune in to her particular qualities?

Von Rothbart is not much of a part, but one dancer in it deployed his cape with commanding power, the other didn't. They were Bruce Thornton and John Hall, and although I can still see them, I can't remember who was who at this point, sorry.

After intermission, the first minute of Balanchine's"Elegy" always did more for me than all of "Swan Lake Act II", which had not been helped by a corps Levin had called "muted" and "fuzzy". When the seven girls in long hair, flowing skirts and bare feet come out and start to move, they're drop-dead gorgeous; my attention is drawn in at once, and remains that way. As an elderly member of the Ft. Lauderdale audience remarked to her companion a few years ago when I first saw MCB do these two ballets in this order, "I liked the second one better. It was more alive."

"Black Swan" followed after a pause, and I accept Levin's observation that Jennifer Kronenberg was unconvincing as the malevolent Odile; but even without malevolence, she gave me plenty to enjoy, with her full and showy rendering of the virtuoso side of this role, crisply turning her effects on and off within the overall shape, showing off her dance, not herself. Saturday evening, this was given a full and vibrant performance by Carranza, and Sunday afternoon, by Mary Carmen Catoya, who may be small, but who makes a large effect; for me, though, Kronenberg was the hard act to follow.

The finale, "Theme and Variations", made opening night Catoya's evening, I felt. Clarity and elegance combined. It was one of those times when everything seems to come together and just rolls, and your excited pleasure builds from height to height. You suspend disbelief ("Are they actually going to pull this off?") and watch ("Well, look at them!"), and sometimes you remember to breathe. Okay, it did seem to me the boy's variation's tempos were impossibly fast, so that a little of it was cut; not Renato Penteado's fault, poor guy, and it gave me a chance to get my breath, whatever it did to his. Saturday evening's cast was led by Kronenberg and Eric Quillere', and considering how I have enjoyed each of them in the past, I wish I could see some of their performance again in memory, but it's as though I can't get those clips to run. But I think at least parts of Sunday afternoon's performance by Deanna Seay and Penteado will be with me for some time. For example, there is a place where Tchaikovsky is quietly leading us through a bridge passage to a restatement of his theme, and Balanchine appropriately has the principals do litle jumps and make little circles in the air with their feet. Seay, with Penteado in tandem, made that passage lighter than air.

At a couple of the performances, I had friends with me. My hostess liked "Black Swan" best, for its energy (she saw Catoya and Mikhail Ilyin in the Sunday matinee); the others, graduate students, mostly preferred the Balanchine ballets for their variety of dance material and for their musical awareness, compared to the traditional excerpts. One woman, a percussionist who had been interested in gymnastics when she was younger and had been made to "take" ballet then, had already changed her feelings about it: "I went to the barre with a scowl. Now I love it." She had the keenest eye for technique, and at the second intermission said that Kronenberg's "Black Swan" had "a few bobbles" but was the best so far. After "T & V", she was amazed: "When I'm on toe, I'm glad if I can do this" demonstrating a couple of straight-ahead steps with her hands "but they're on pointe for two minutes at a time!" One preferred the longer ballets; another, working in film, was stimulated by the live-theatre experience and expects to continue attending concerts, ballet, and drama.

Not part of Program II but given onthe same weekend was a "Ballet for Young People" matinee on Saturday. I walked in to find the curtain up and the stage taken over by the gods at play; I hadn't realized that the indefatigable Villella would be conducting a lecture-demonstration beforehand, as company class wound up. At the end, he took some questions from the audience, and one little girl wanted to know whether it hurt when the girls went up on their toes. He asked Deanna Seay whether she would answer that, and Seay said succinctly, "It doesn't hurt any more." This was followed by a performance of a single ballet, Balanchine's "Who Cares?", by students (in costume) from MCB's school, which was sometimes careful but often better than that.

In previous seasons I had felt assaulted by the loud, screechy amplification in the Gleason Theatre, but this weekend it was so much better the music always conspired with the dance to increase my enjoyment, never interfering with it. It turned out the company had hired their own sound operator, who brought in speakers and amplifiers, including backstage sound for the dancers. But there was better news.

Before each performance, Mike Eidson, chairman of the company's board, bragged from the stage about the company's upcoming joint appearance at the Kennedy Center with the Kirov and the Bolshoi and ABT and so on, told us there was now an "operating surplus" which would allow retiring some of the "burden" the company was carrying and bring closer the day when they could pay the dancers more nearly what they're worth [amen!], and said there would be an orchestra for "Coppelia" (Program III). (My preference is for this sort of thing to be in the printed program, but Eidson is upbeat and brief, and if you're going to do it, that's the way to do it.) He recalled being asked by the director of another American company how MCB is able to keep on improving in sometimes difficult circumstances. Eidson's answer was, "We have Edward Villella, and you don't." Take another bow, Edward.

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Thanks for your reviews, Jack!

By the way, do you know if there is any hope that the MCB will tour to France someday? They were supposed to come to Lyon in 1998, but that tour was cancelled a few months before, much to my disappointment, and they don't seem to have any plans to come to France someday... Also I guess that there are quite a few POB fans (including myself) who would be glad to see Eric Quilleré again...

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